Diane Targovnik just set the date for her son’s bar mitzvah in 2023. He’s only 11, but she wanted to get it on the books. When he was born, she and her husband decided against circumcision. Since then, they have lost Jewish community over their decision. Part of that loss includes cutting ties with their longtime Conservative synagogue in Greater Phoenix.
The Conservative movement holds the position that non-circumcising families be allowed membership but denied a bar mitzvah.
Targovnik was born and raised in that tradition, but recently, she joined a local independent synagogue in its place — one that would permit her son to have his bar mitzvah and full membership in the Jewish community.
She said not having the circumcision was one of the hardest decision she ever made, but even though members of her family are still upset with her, it was still “probably one of the decisions I’m most proud of. My role as a Jewish mother is to protect my son and that’s what I felt like I did.”
A new organization called Bruchim (Hebrew for “welcome”), is seeking to normalize the decision not to circumcise Jewish boys, a venerable religious rite that goes back to the Bible and which is widely practiced across the spectrum of Jewish observance, even by otherwise non-observant Jewish families. Targovnik has known the group’s founders for years and hosted Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon in Phoenix in 2011 when he was making the rounds with “Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision,” his documentary opposing circumcision. She is also a member of the organization’s chavurim where they gather on Zoom to plan next moves.
“Families who are making this decision shouldn’t feel marginalized and they shouldn’t feel like they have to be secret about it,” said Lisa Braver Moss, Bruchim’s co-founder and president.
The group is an outgrowth of advocacy that Moss and Bruchim co-founder and executive director, Rebecca Wald, have been doing for decades. Moss first argued against Jewish circumcision in a 1990 essay, and together they outlined an alternative ceremony, brit shalom (literally “covenant of peace”) in a 2015 book and distributed flyers at that year’s Reform movement convention outlining ways for synagogues to be more welcoming for families that had opted out of circumcision.
Now, in Bruchim, they have a volunteer staff and a four-member rabbinical advisory board. The team includes people with professional backgrounds in all of Judaism’s non-Orthodox movements, as well as several people who grew up Orthodox.
Among its objectives, Bruchim wants to see synagogues make proactive statements of welcome for non-circumcising families similar to those that have become common toward Jews of color and LGBT+ Jews. They also hope rabbis will offer one of several alternative welcome ceremonies for newborns in place of the traditional bris.
Before Targovnik had her first child, a girl, she had always seen the ritual of circumcision as “something beautiful and normal.” In fact, when she first heard about opposition to circumcision in some corners she “had a knee-jerk reaction that it was antisemitic.” But she wanted to know more in case she would ever have a son.
The more research she did, the more she became convinced circumcision was unnecessary and “I knew in my heart of hearts that it was wrong,” she said.
When she first watched Ungar-Sargon’s film in the course of her research, her 2-year-old daughter was sleeping, but a scene with a baby screaming during his circumcision caused her to cry out in her sleep, and Targovnik asked herself, “if my sleeping daughter can realize this is hurting a baby, how can other people not realize it?”
In the end, she concluded “it wasn’t my decision to make for my son.”
Instead, she and her husband opted for the brit shalom ceremony. After being rejected by several rabbis, Temple Solel’s Rabbi John Linder agreed to do it.
The Reform movement does not have a policy about how to handle families who are considering or have decided not to circumcise. But the movement’s leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said in a statement that ritual circumcision remains something his movement “will always advocate” for — even as other choices are accepted.
“As one of the oldest rituals in the Jewish faith, we will always advocate and educate our community about the beauty and meaning of brit milah,” Jacobs said. But he added, “Connecting oneself to the Jewish community may take many forms, and we understand that some families and individuals are making the choice to not circumcise as part of the brit ceremony. There will always be a place for everyone in the Reform community, regardless of how they or their family choose to express their faith.”
Linder said he has not done another such ceremony but has no regrets about doing the brit shalom for Targovnik. “I have had very difficult conversations with parents and grandparents around this issue, when someone struggles with the ritual of circumcision. (Targovnik) is someone I experienced as a very committed Jew, who wanted to create a naming ceremony for her son that did not include a brit milah. My logic for the decision is similar to when I decide to officiate a Jewish wedding for a Jew and a non-Jew — it’s based on wanting to keep someone in the community who is making a commitment to raise children as Jews and to create a Jewish home.”
Linder said he wouldn’t hesitate doing another brit shalom, although he doesn’t promote it and understands why some of his colleagues would oppose it.
OR ADAM Congregation for Humanistic Judaism Rabbi Jeffrey Schesnol said his tradition welcomes all people who identify as Jewish with “no litmus test, including circumcision.”
“After thousands of years of discrimination and living in Diaspora, our attitude is that you’re welcome here if you want to make a connection with us,” he said. “We’ve gone far too long in exclusion, of keeping people out — we’d rather bring people in.”
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the leading bioethicist in the Conservative movement and the chair of its top Jewish law authority, said there is no basis in Jewish law for denying an uncircumcised man access to religious life, including bar-mitzvah. But his movement has not made any formal statements since the 1981 opinion taking bar mitzvah off the table for uncircumcised children.
And Dorff said that advertising openness to non-circumcising families, one of Bruchim’s main asks, is not something that he would endorse.
“Do I want to say publicly, even though it’s certainly true, that people who violate Shabbat publicly are welcome in our community?” Dorff said. “Of course they’re welcome in our community. But I don’t want to say publicly that it’s wonderful that you violate Shabbat.”
No reliable statistics exist on the percentage of American Jewish men who are circumcised, though the vast majority are believed to be. In part, that’s because circumcision is performed on the vast majority of American boys — some 90% of non-Hispanic whites, according to a 2014 study, making the U.S. a global outlier on this issue. But that figure appears to be dropping.
Critics of circumcision object to the practice on a number of grounds, including the physical and emotional trauma inflicted on children, a conviction they lack the right to modify someone’s body without permission and a belief that there is no medical benefit for the child. The position of the American medical establishment is that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks.
The broad societal trend, coupled with the fact that 72% of American Jews who married between 2010 and 2020 chose a non-Jewish spouse, according to the 2020 Pew study, means that while the numbers of Jewish parents who choose to leave their children “intact” is almost certainly a tiny minority, their numbers are likely to be growing.
Targovnik said she is part of a growing movement, but admitted “it is hard when you go to a new synagogue and try to find out if there’s anybody else who made the same decision.”
She has found others. “I know people who circumcised their first son and didn’t do it with their second,” she said. “It takes a lot of wonderful chutzpah to realize you made a mistake.”
Wald said that the taboo nature of the subject keeps people from discussing it openly. “But all this is changing very quickly,” she said, via email. “In five or 10 years, maybe even sooner, the choice not to circumcise will be respected as a valid Jewish choice.”
Until then, Targovnik said she feels like a member of a “secret club. But then you find other people made the same choice — mothers especially have done a lot of thinking about it. I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last.” JN